603 What Are Dogs Bred FOR

by   David Hancock

 In ancient times, it was perhaps easier to ascertain why dogs were bred. With the threat from wolves to domesticated animals, no firearms to kill game from a distance, roving bands of robbers and freezing nights in uncentrally-heated dwellings, it is easy to justify how flock-guarding, arrow-retrieving, deer-catching, house-protecting and warmth-providing dogs could be valued and then perpetuated. But the biggest single reason for the remarkable development of so many breeds was man's love of sport, from the Greeks in classical times to medieval Bavaria and beyond.

 Sportsmen in country areas all over Europe have long taken their pursuit of game extremely seriously. Duke Ulrich of Wurttemburg made an order in 1517 which read: "Anybody, whoever it may be, met with a gun, crossbow or similar weapon in the duke's forests and hunting grounds, in woods or fields or any place where game may be about, away from public roads, or is seen to move in a suspicious way, even though he is not in the process of shooting, will have his eyes gouged out." In the same year, the zealous duke had a poacher sewn alive into the skin of a stag and coursed by his hounds.

 This rather serious approach to hunting and shooting led to enormous and enormously-varied bags being accounted for each year. In one year, 1669, the following were offered for sale from the Elector's store in Dresden old town: 861 red deer, 616 wild boar, 646 hares, 751 partridges, 65 woodcock, 20 Indian geese, 4 swans, 15 bears, 74 wolves, 15 lynxes, 170 foxes, 55 badgers, 17 beavers, 27 otters and 13 squirrels. Could such a total have been achieved without the help of dogs? Could this have been achieved without the help of dogs bred for a specific purpose?

 The combination of a passion for hunting by noblemen in Europe and the wide range of prey led to the development of most of our contemporary sporting dogs: hounds, setters and pointers, with functional excellence being the sole criterion; no sign of any obsession with bend of stifle, level topline or length of ear. When my eye is attracted to a statuesque over-furnished English setter posing in a gundog class at a conformation show, I, almost in sadness, ponder the rich heritage behind this splendid breed. I recall the superb field dogs run by the late Dr JB Maurice from his "Downsman" kennel; the extraordinary field trial record of William Humphrey and his "Windem" line of Llewellins; Llewellin himself and his superbly-bred dogs; Laverack and his handsome yet functional dogs -- then think back to the chien d'oysel of medieval times.

 I can remember seeing the impressive Langhaar for the first time -- thinking at a distance that it was an Irish Setter. I recall too the admirable Small Munsterlanders I saw in Westphalia forty years ago -- so much like the Llewellins in their working style. We now own thousands of GSPs but relatively few Langhaars and no Small Munsterlanders here at all. Is this from ignorance, prejudice, personal preference or a copycat mentality?

 Preferences in the show ring, although preserving some breeds which would have otherwise been lost to us like the Irish Wolfhound, the Sussex Spaniel and the Dandie Dinmont Terrier, have led to the removal of much of the rich variety in our setter breeds. For whilst only the field fraternity in the United States persevere with the Llewellins, we have lost the Llanidloes variety, the tricolour of Southesk, the jet-blacks of Ossulton and  Lort's black and whites. In this context the renaissance of the Red and White Irish Setter is more than welcome. A litter of setter pups a hundred years or so ago could contain six different colours or colour combinations.

 The performance and stature -- in every sense of the word -- of the superb black and white Gordon Setter owned and trialled by Bob Truman, which has been described as the best grouse dog this century, could be of enormous value to the breed. But such outstanding genes will never be capitalised on beyond the shooting field; colour prejudice will nearly always triumph over sheer merit. But are we that happy with the quality in the breed? I see some quite shocking specimens as pets. Do we breed for real quality in our pedigree breeds or just want to win rosettes?

 Our sporting ancestors gave us these magnificent breeds as functional animals with a clearly identifiable type to each breed. In some breeds this heritage is handed on to us even in the breed name, as exemplified in the Golden Retriever and the yellow Labrador. I seem to see more "golden" retrievers resembling Maremma sheepdogs too every show season. Where is that wonderfully attractive red-gold hue of old? If present-day breeders are not skilful enough to breed the correct colour for their chosen breed, then they should choose another breed -- and not be allowed to alter the breed standard when they lose a breed feature. Why be contented with pale imitations? Why abandon treasured coat colours handed down to us by the pioneers in a breed whom we claim to revere?

 I often hear contemporary breeders of pedigree dogs state quite shamelessly that their terriers aren't expected to "go to ground", that their Bulldogs aren't going to need to "pin" bulls, that their Great Danes will never be called upon to hunt wild boar and that their Gordon Setters don't have to last a long day on a grouse moor. That to me is a quite shocking abrogation of responsibility. We should be proud of breeding dogs which are still capable of carrrying out their original function even if they will never be required to do so.

 In that way we keep faith with those we record reverently in our breed histories. In that way we honour the heritage of the precious breeds we have the privilege of owning in our lifetime. Just as they were handed down to us, we in turn have to hand them down to those who come after us. We should be able to do so both with a clear conscience and immense inner satisfaction not with silent regret and concealed embarrassment.